When a person injures the region of their spine immediately below their skull, emergency medical technicians apply what is known as a cervical collar. The devices first saw use in the Vietnam War, where medics needed a quick and simple system that could be used to immobilize the heads and necks of injured soldiers. In the years since, however, some studies have suggested that by pushing the head up and away from the body, the collars may cause the vertebrae to separate – actually making some spinal injuries worse. Fortunately, a team of six undergraduate engineering students from Houston’s Rice University are now developing a new type of cervical collar, that keeps the head still in a safer fashion.

The prototype plastic-and-foam device, known as the HeadCase, cradles the patient’s chin and the sides of their head, while also pressing against their upper chest and back via a strap that runs under their arms – unlike a traditional cervical collar, it doesn’t even touch their neck. According to Kelsey Horter, a bioengineering student who is also an emergency medical technician, this is an ideal set-up.

“As EMTs, we’re taught that if the knee is hurt, you stabilize above and below it,” she said. “You never just stabilize the part that’s injured – which is exactly what we think the current cervical collar does. We jumped on the premise that if we could stabilize the head and the torso right beneath the neck, then we could stabilize the neck. That’s what our device does.”

In tests of both the HeadCase and traditional collars, the new device was found to provide more immobilization, while not stretching the neck. It was also found to be much more comfortable to wear.

Even if it does work better, however, it still might never come into common use if it isn’t practical. To that end, it is designed to be easy to use, and inexpensive. It packs flat for transport, can be applied within 60 seconds, and should cost less per unit than the US$15 or so that conventional collars go for. Like those collars, the HeadCase would be disposable.

The project was inspired by the research of John Hipp, former director of the Spine Research Laboratory at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. He has long maintained that conventional cervical collars need to be improved, and approached Rice about putting the challenge to its engineering students.

More information on HeadCase is available in the video below.

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